EPIC quandary – what gear do I cram into my backpack for a multi-day trip into the depths of the Grand Canyon or up into the thin air of Mt Kilimanjaro or for that matter on an overnighter hike chasing fall color!!!!
Morning Mist rising off Cosley Lake, Belly River Area, Glacier National Park, MT
I am sure we are all faced with the question of what to take & what to leave behind ….. Regardless of what you take you will always be faced with situation that you may not have the perfect gear for all shots… the way I personally approach this is by researching the shots I want to go after & ensuring I have all the right gear for those shots and then based on what the hike or trip is — I decide to take a few extras or give up something depending on what my pack weight will allow.
Mossy Travertine under Ribbon Falls, North Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon, AZ
Some considerations for the backcountry photographic adventures…
Ensure you have the right gear you need to have a safe & positive backcountry experience.
- Your safety kit, food, water /water treatment & shelter gets 1st priority. What is adequate depends on your personal preference — I go fairly light weight: Water is the heaviest item in my pack — especially when I am out in arid regions of the Southwest. I have a fairly light weight set up for the rest of my essentials.
- My navigation plan (aka awater proof map) with my trail plan marked up – this is #2. In place where I know the trails well & know the area I will forego GPS etc. If I am going in to new areas I will take a small Garmin unit with my planned trail down loaded on it. Researching your area of adventure & having a hardcopy plan & map is critical ( Batteries dies & GPS loose signal). Do your research on your photographic objectives — backcountry images are sometimes taken from unique perspectives & may need special gear or skills to access them.
- Let some one know where you are going , your route plans & when you are expected to be back. Also give them some guide as to when to raise the alarm should you be overdue.
SPOT or NOT? : Carrying a personal safety beacon is a good think especially if you are travelling in a small group or alone in especially rugged areas. That said, act responsibly in how you use it.
Balanced Rock, Big Bend, TX
Footwear & Clothing
- For trips 3 or more days , I usually travel with 1+1 ( 1 set on body & a full change). This is a personal preference — you can do with less or more — just remember you will be carrying the weight! A small personal kit & some toiletries and duct tape ( Duct tape can be used to pretty much fix a lot of things).
- I have a good well broken in hiking boots — I do not use Gortex lined shoes except in winter. I do carry a fresh pair of socks for each day of my backpack. Being blister free is priceless!
- For water hikes: I have a well draining boot with sticky rubber sole ( 5.10 Canyoneers) and use neoprene socks to keep my feet warm in cold water. Personally, I find sandals too cumbersome & trouble prone in serious water hikes. All my gear is in waterproof roll top sacs ( the kind you use for kayaking!) Lighter weight sacs will leak — its just a matter of time; so I rely on some hardy kayaking gear to keep all my electronics dry.
On all my backpacks, I have a pair of light weight hiking poles — they help distribute your load, save your knees & stabilize — and have served many other roles – fishing rod for drowned gear, holding back vegetation that gets in my shot, rescuing gear that the ravens parked at difficult to reach places, tent pole ….
Fall Magic at Aravaipa Creek in Southern Arizona
- Camera: My current favorite is the Canon 5DMII & the handy dandy Panasonic FZ150 super zoom! Yes I carry both – primarily using the FZ 150 for my trip shots and limiting the use of 5DMII to my “image capture”. Over time I have found this to be practical, allowing me versatility to keep my distances/ pace on track for covering some miles with my pack & getting me to the great locations. The superzoom allows me to leave the heavier DSLR zoom lens home & satisfy my wildlife photography cravings – definitely a tradeoff.
- Lens: The wide angle lens are always the 1st to get in to the pack! 17-35mm & 28-70mm ( this stays on the camera). This is my minimum set of lens I have. If I am backpacking with my spouse, we will share some gear & add in the 70mm-200mm with a doubler. This is ideal since now I have a fairly full range !!! On a particularly moderate hike where there is water available, I might add in a macro lens as well…
- Tripod: My preference is for the Gitzo Traveller with the Acractech ball head . This is a fully functional solid tripod-head combo that usually provides good stability. It also fits really well on a backpack and rides well – this becomes a major consideration especially if you are backpacking for multiple days. Also remember – a rock is a good tripod as well!! Be creative & you will find things that stay putt in the wilderness. A short tripod also works especially if you can position it on some rocks to get the height. Remember to have a Phillips wrench & wire/zip ties handy.
- Filters: Polarizer that stays on the lens, couple of graduated ND filters (2 stop & 3 stop), a Vari ND filter for long exposures especially if I have the opportunity to shoot water.
- Batteries: Get good (I find branded batteries perform better in adverse conditions) batteries & remember to keep them protected to hold charge. On rafting trips I take along a solar charger but on backpacks – 3-4 batteries and I don’t pixel peep!
- Memory & Backups: I carry a lot of memory cards so I don’t have to worry about moving files in the backcountry. Personally, I am OK not backing up in the field. If the absolute catastrophe strikes and I loose my images, I view it as an excuse to go on the trip again!! You may choose to backup in the field – my favorite piece of gear for this is the EPSON Viewer. Compact & decent battery life and I have added a solid state disk to it so it is very frugal on power consumption.
- Other: I pack a bushy art paint brush to brush out any dust/sand that might get on my lens & into the camera controls & some good lens wipes. I also have simple water proof covers for my camera crafted out of compactor bags — light weight & cheap.
Learn your camera controls: Shooting fast will get you the shot even if your set up is a little suspect ( flimsy tripod, windy etc). So know your controls and the limits of what your camera set up will do.
Snows of Kilimanjaro from the trail , Tanzania, Africa
How to carry all this:
- My SLR with its primary lens is loaded into the top the bag & rides well cushioned amid my clothes. At the top of the pack, it’s a fairly quick access to get to it. If I stop to make an image & set up my tripod, the fact the camera is in the pack really does not affect anything.
- My super zoom point n Shoot rides handy in a hip holster on my backpack’s waist strap. It well protected & quite handy and mainly serves as my trip camera – all the fun shots & some of those longrange wildlife shots. If needed I will throw this one on a tripod to get the shot if I know I don’t have the range with my SLR set up.
- Tripod rides on the outside of the pack along centerline for balance & staying out of way!
- Additional lens are wrapped in lens wrap pads & live at the top of lens just under my camera.
- Filters & such in the top lid of the pack.
To some this might be too little protection but to me accessibility & lighter loads lead me to actually use the gear & be able to set up quickly. I have never had any field loss of gear so far , they had their share being dropped with the pack – so far seems to work OK. That said , additional protection is always good!
Toploader Camera chest harness: Sounds great & works well till you are in terrain where you need to see where your feet are & where footing is tenuous. You have to get used to looking around the sides to see. I love these for easier terrain hikes but sometimes they just get in the way and make it unsafe. So the toploader travels with me on some trips as a chest harness, on other in my pack especially when I have day hikes from a base camp & on some it just stays home.
Chuar Butte reflects on the Little Colorado, Grand Canyon, AZ
Leave No Trace
We have an unique responsibility to protect these wonders and the solitude that surrounds the beautiful places we go to. Practice Leave No Trace – Experience the place , capture your experience & share them so we may protect these for generations to come. Strive to share your experience of the place – make it unique & yours! Backpacking is wonderful immersion in the environment & with this immersion comes a special connection to the land. Strive to share this special bond you develop over time through your work . Such experience is very powerful & very rewarding!
Full Moon Rising, Monument Valley, AZ